Emotions and Rhetoric Run High at Public Lands Meeting

20160420 Public Lands ProtestA Utah Highway Patrol trooper was stationed in Wednesday’s meeting of the Stewardship of Public Lands Commission meeting, just to make sure no one in the packed audience got out of control.

But it was Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, and Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake, who were more likely to claw each other’s eyes out, not members of the attending public.

In what only can be described as a meeting out of control at times, Noel and Dabakis went out after each other over several public lands issues.

Dabakis told fellow GOP commission members “someone” will bring a lawsuit against them and other GOP legislative leaders if the outside attorneys’ work product for a commission study is not made public.

Noel said environmental groups had hired various Navajo “leaders” as paid lobbyists, thus discrediting those who oppose U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop’s public lands transfer bill.

Noel said GOP Gov. Gary Herbert will put on a May special session call various resolutions which will – if passed by the majority Republicans – officially oppose making Southeastern Utah’s Bear Ears area a national monument, support the Bishop land bill, and again call for the federal government to return lands to Utah control.

At one point, even Sen. David Hinkins, R- Orangeville, the commission’s co-chair, got in Dabakis’ face, accusing the liberal senator of misstating facts and blowing out of proportion “the whole thing.”

“I’m sick of it,” Hinkins told Dabakis, raising his voice.

In fact, several voices were raised by the commission members, while the audience basically behaved itself.

Noel; Dabakis; Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake; Hinkins; and Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville; at various times called out: “Point of Order,” in trying to stop one another from insulting each other or questioning each other’s motives – a no-no in what is supposed to be the proper, if not congenial, legislative committee hearing processes.

Two main issues of disagreement Wednesday:

1) Briscoe and Dabakis are angry that as commission members they have not been allowed to see the work product of a $600,000 special report by outside attorneys on whether Utah could win a U.S. Supreme Court fight to get control of more than 31 million acres of federal land in the state.

2) Republicans on the commission accuse environmental groups of dividing Native American tribes over the proposed “conservation area” to preserve the Bears Ears area of San Juan County.

The Republicans strongly oppose President Barack Obama making the 3 million acres national monument – as he has hinted he may do before he leaves office the end of this year.

Here is a history and the study on returning federal lands to state control, which was promised by Congress at statehood in 1896, but never done on a large scale.

Specifically, Dabakis and Briscoe are upset that the New Orleans law firm (with several PR firms also doing work) won’t tell the commission’s two Democrats about “private, attorney-client” legal work.

Only the co-chairs, Hinkins and Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, were briefed by the attorneys on what federal attorneys’ strategies may be, and how the state attorneys should counter-act those strategies.

The GOP leaders say if that work product gets out, it will harm – maybe even kill – Utah’s chances of returning all that land to state control.

Brown said other Republicans on the commission also were not told about the legal strategies – and so the two Democrats have no real complaints.

But complain Briscoe and Dabakis certainly did.

Some Dabakis comments:

  • GOP members of the committee – in fact, legislative Republican leadership in general – are acting more like Vladimir Putin than an American democracy.
  • Legislative Republicans act like the Legislature “is a priesthood meeting,” and act in secret to set what should be public policies.
  • Did the PR firms, which were paid more than $100,000, do anything unethical in their work, as Dabakis worries about. (This brought shouts of Points of Order and Hankins’s claim that Dabakis is smearing good firms with no evidence at all.)
  • “I hear there are some nasty things in there” about the firms’ actions, countered Dabakis. Show it to me, he said and prove him wrong.
  • “Public money was spent, and we have a right to know” what the attorneys told Hinkins and Stratton.


  • “The Democrats are trying to disrupt this process any way they can!”
  • “All you do is holler and shout, you don’t care about these areas” in rural Utah, nor the struggling folks who live there.
  • Those opposing the Bishop bill and returning federal lands to Utahns “are greedy, selfish people.”

Dabakis asked for a Point of Order, claiming Noel was besmirching people of good intentions – that Noel was giving opinions, not facts.

“Yeah, this is my personal belief – I understand you (Dabakis), mister, very, very well!”

  • “I don’t want to hand (the federal attorneys) our playbook before the game has even started.”

When Stratton asked how many folks in the audience (there were so many in attendance a second hearing room was opened for the overflow crowd to listen in), were from Southern Utah, only a few raised their hands.

That left pro-monument folks, wearing special T-shirts, to giggle.

Responded Noel: “Our folks have jobs and had to work today” so couldn’t drive 300 miles for the hearing – more groans from the T-shirt crowd.

In the end, nothing was decided, except that Briscoe and Dabakis wouldn’t see the commission attorneys’ work product, and obviously, there are bad feelings among Republican and Democratic commission members.

“Some of us don’t trust each other,” mumbled Noel at one point.

It was evident, however, that the Native American community around the Four Corners area is indeed split.

Some want the Bishop bill’s “conservation area” – which would include several Native American representatives on a special management committee.

Some want the national monument, which they believe would better insulate local’s possible exploitation of the land.

Stratton, who spent part of the meeting trying to calm tempers, said it appears to him all concerned want to protect Bears Ears – keeping the spiritual aspect of the land, open to multiple uses and practices.

The question is which is the best way to do that, he said.

We certainly haven’t heard the end of any of this – Obama could interrupt the Bishop bill process with a national monument designation.

In May, a special legislative session will take up the no-monument resolutions.